HOPE FOR DHI QAR’S AUTISTIC CHILDREN: Volunteers fight to help local disabled youth

By Murtadha al-Hudud in Dhi Qar

The hall in Dhi Qar is bright and filled with noise, conversation and the laughter of young people. One young man sits with colourful cards in his hands, trying to catch the attention of children in front of him. Another helps a child pronounce words properly.

It is all part of an initiative started by eight young men from Suq al-Shuyukh, a town in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar. Hani Talib heads the team of volunteers and explained how the initiative, now named Safaa Volunteers, began.

He and some of his friends were trained in assistance for autistic or handicapped children and they knew of the difficulties local families had. Often the families would have to drive many kilometres in order to bring their children to Dhi Qar’s special needs clinics.

So Talib and his colleagues decided to try to set up an informal centre for children with special needs locally and in January 2024, took the first steps towards this. Once the group was registered with local authorities and had secured a place to meet — in a religious congregation hall — they put out a call on social media to let local families know they were here for them.

The official, government-run clinic for children with autism opened in 2014 and since then, has registered 2,460 cases locally. However the World Health Organisation estimates that around 1%, or one child in every 100, may be somewhere on the autism spectrum. Given that Dhi Qar has a population of over 2 million and that over a third of people living here are under 14 years of age, the true figure is likely much higher. Also impacting the true number is the fact that Dhi Qar is one of Iraq’s least developed provinces and there is a generally negative attitude in local culture towards disabled individuals of any kind.

“Autism spectrum disorders are a diverse group of conditions,” the World Health Organisation writes. “They are characterized by some degree of difficulty with social interaction and communication. Other characteristics are atypical patterns of activities and behaviours, such as difficulty with transitioning from one activity to another, a focus on details and unusual reactions to sensations.”

Autistic individuals do develop over time, the organisation notes: “While some people with autism can live independently, others have severe disabilities and require lifelong care and support.” Their families usually also need support.

In Dhi Qar, local schools have tried to provide support for autistic children too. For the school year ending in 2023, there were 658 autistic pupils registered at 68 schools in the province. However, the head of the local teachers’ syndicate has previously said that schools are not necessarily the right place for these students because they need more specialised help, care and attention and overburdened local teachers may not be able to provide this.

This is where Talib and the Safaa Volunteers are hoping to help. After they put out the call on social media, they received eight patients at first.

Now the children and family members come to the hall every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon. There the volunteers provide games and counselling.

And their work has been well received. The local youth affairs authorities have helped them expand and offered larger, better equipped halls. The number of autistic children coming regularly has risen to 50 and Talib expects more will keep arriving.

The children’s parents have also reported noticeable improvements in their offspring. After a long struggle, his child’s speech has improved and he is able to pronounce words, one father in the hall, Hamed Majid, said.

The Safaa Volunteers are also happy with the results so far. Their long-term ambition is to establish another specialized centre, and to employ doctors and other personnel, to better care for Dhi Qar’s autistic children.

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